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History is the enemy when Washington's “brilliant” psy-ops become the news

From Agent Orange in South Vietnam to Obama’s drone attacks in Afghanistan and war in Syria, Washington spins its assaults on the world as it cynically lives up to a reputation for casual slaughter.

Arriving in a village in southern Vietnam, I caught sight of two children who bore witness to the longest war of the 20th century. Their terrible deformities were familiar. All along the Mekong River, where the forests were petrified and silent, small human mutations lived as best they could.

Today, at the Tu Du paediatric hospital in Saigon, a former operating theatre is known as the “collection room” and, unofficially, as the “room of horrors”. It has shelves of large bottles containing grotesque foetuses. During its invasion of Vietnam, the United States sprayed a defoliant herbicide on vegetation and villages to deny “cover to the enemy”. This was Agent Orange, which contained dioxins, poisons of such power that they cause foetal death, miscarriage, chromosomal damage and cancer.

In 1970, a US Senate report stated that “the US has dumped [on South Vietnam] a quantity of toxic chemical amounting to six pounds per head of population, including women and children”. The code name for this weapon of mass destruction, Operation Hades, was changed to the friendlier Operation Ranch Hand. An estimated 4.8 million of the victims of Agent Orange today are children.

Hanging tough

Len Aldis, secretary of the Britain-Vietnam Friendship Society, recently returned from Vietnam with a letter for the International Olympic Committee from the Vietnam Women’s Union. The president of the union, Nguyen Thi Thanh Hoa, described “the severe congenital deformities [caused by Agent Orange] from generation to generation”. She asked the IOC to reconsider its decision to accept sponsorship of the London Olympics from the Dow Chemical Corporation, which was one of the companies that manufactured the poison and has refused to compensate its victims.

Aldis hand-delivered the letter to the office of Lord Coe, chairman of the London Organising Committee. He has had no reply. When Amnesty International pointed out that in 2001 Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide, “the company responsible for the Bhopal gas leak [in India in 1984] which killed 7,000 to 10,000 people immediately and a further 15,000 in the following 20 years”, David Cameron described Dow as a “reputable company”. Cheers, then, as the television cameras pan across the £7m decorative wrap that sheathes the Olympic Stadium: the product of a ten-year “deal” between the IOC and such a reputable destroyer.

History is buried with the dead and deformed of Vietnam and Bhopal. History is the new enemy. On 28 May, President Obama launched
a campaign to falsify the history of the war in Vietnam. To Obama, there was no Agent Orange, no free-fire zones, no turkey shoots, no cover-ups of massacres, no rampant racism, no suicides (as many Americans took their own lives as died in the war), no defeat by a resistance army drawn from an impoverished society. It was, said Mr Hopey Changey, “one of the most extraordinary stories of bravery and integrity in the annals of [US] military history”.

The following day, the New York Times published a long article documenting how Obama personally selects the victims of his drone attacks across the world. He does this on “terror Tuesdays” as he browses through mugshots on a “kill list”, some of them of teenagers, including “a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years”. Many are unknown or simply of military age. Guided by “pilots” sitting in front of computer screens in Las Vegas, the drones fire Hellfire missiles that suck the air out of lungs and blow people to bits. Last September, Obama killed a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, purely on the basis of hearsay that he was in­citing terrorism. “This one is easy,” aides quoted him as saying as he signed the man’s death warrant. On 6 June, a drone killed 18 civilians in a village in Afghanistan, including women, children and elderly people who were celebrating a wedding.

The New York Times article was not a leak or an exposé. It was a piece of PR, designed by the Obama administration to show what a tough guy the “commander-in-chief” can be in an election year. If re-elected, Brand Obama will continue serving the wealthy, pursuing truth-tellers, threatening other countries, spreading computer viruses and murdering people every Tuesday.

The threats against Syria, co-ordinated in Washington and London, scale new peaks of hypocrisy. Contrary to the raw propaganda presented as news, the investigative journalism of the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung identifies those responsible for the massacre in Houla as the “rebels” backed by Obama and Cameron. The paper’s sources include the rebels themselves. This has not been completely ignored in Britain. Writing in his personal blog, ever so quietly, Jon Williams, the BBC World News editor, in effect dishes his own “coverage”, citing a western official who described the “psy-ops” operation against Syria as “brilliant”. As brilliant as the destruction of Libya, and Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Significantly insignificant

And as brilliant as the psy-ops of the Guardian’s latest promotion of Alastair Campbell, the chief collaborator of Tony Blair in the criminal invasion of Iraq. In his “diaries”, Campbell tries to splash Iraqi blood on the demon Murdoch. There is plenty to drench them all. But recognition that the respectable, liberal, Blair-fawning media were a vital accessory to such an epic crime is omitted and remains a singular test of intellectual and moral honesty in Britain.

How much longer must we subject ourselves to such an “invisible government”? This term for insidious propaganda, first used by Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud and inventor of modern public relations, has never been more apt. “False reality” requires historical amnesia, lying by omission and the transfer of significance to the insignificant. In this way, political systems promising security and social justice have been replaced by piracy, “austerity” and “perpetual war”: an extremism dedicated to the overthrow of democracy. Applied to an individual, this would identify a psycho­path. Why do we accept it?

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Labour break the Osborne supremacy?

The Conservative hegemony is deeply embedded - but it can be broken, says Ken Spours.

The Conservative Party commands a majority not just in the House of Commons, but also in the wider political landscape. It holds the political loyalty of expanding and powerful voting constituencies, such as the retired population and private sector businesses and their workers. It is dominant in English politics outside the largest urban centres, and it has ambitions to consolidate its position in the South West and to move into the “Northern Powerhouse”. Most ambitiously, it aims to detach irreversibly the skilled working classes from allegiance to the Labour Party, something that was attempted by Thatcher in the 1980s. Its goal is the building of new political hegemonic bloc that might be termed the Osborne supremacy, after its chief strategist.

The new Conservative hegemony is not simply based on stealing Labour’s political clothes or co-opting the odd political figure, such as Andrew Adonis; it runs much deeper and has been more than a decade the making. While leading conservative thinkers have not seriously engaged with the work of Antonio Gramsci, they act as if they have done. They do this instinctively, although they also work hard at enacting political domination.

 Adaptiveness through a conservative ‘double shuffle’

A major source of the new Conservative hegemony has been its fundamental intellectual political thinking and its adaptive nature. The intellectual foundations were laid in the decades of Keysianism when free market thinkers, notably Hayak and Friedman, pioneered neo-liberal thinking that would burst onto the political scene in Reagan/Thatcher era.  Despite setbacks, following the exhaustion of the Thatcherite political project in the 1990s, it has sprung back to life again in a more malleable form. Its strengths lie not only in its roots in a neo-liberal economy and state, but in a conservative ‘double shuffle’: the combining of neo-Thatcherite economics and social and civil liberalism, represented by a highly flexible and cordial relationship between Osborne and Cameron.  

 Right intellectual and political resources

The Conservative Party has also mobilised an integrated set of highly effective political and intellectual resources that are constantly seeking new avenues of economic, technological, political and social development, able to appropriate the language of the Left and to summon and frame popular common sense. These include well-resourced Right think tanks such as Policy Exchange; campaigning attack organisations, notably, the Taxpayers Alliance; a stratum of websites (e.g. ConservativeHome) and bloggers linked to the more established rightwing press that provide easy outlets for key ideas and stories. Moreover, a modernized Conservative Parliamentary Party provides essential political leadership and is highly receptive to new ideas.

 Very Machiavellian - conservative coercion and consensus

No longer restrained by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have also opted for a strategy of coercion to erode the remaining political bastions of the Left with proposed legislation against trade unions, attacks on charities with social missions, reform of the Human Rights Act, and measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. Coupled with proposed boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (Evel) in the House of Commons, these are aimed at crippling the organisational capacity of Labour and the wider Left.  It is these twin strategies of consensus and coercion that they anticipate will cohere and expand the Conservative political bloc – a set of economic, political and social alliances underpinned by new institutional ‘facts on the ground’ that aims to irrevocably shift the centre of political gravity.

The strengths and limits of the Conservative political bloc

In 2015 the conservative political bloc constitutes an extensive and well-organised array of ‘ramparts and earthworks’ geared to fighting successful political and ideological ‘wars of position’ and occasional “wars of manoeuvre”. This contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological trenches of Labour and the Left, which could be characterised as fragmented and in a state of serious disrepair.

The terrain of the Conservative bloc is not impregnable, however, having potential fault lines and weaknesses that might be exploited by a committed and skillful adversary. These include an ideological approach to austerity and shrinking the state that will hit their voting blocs; Europe; a social ‘holding pattern’ and dependence on the older voter that fails to tap into the dynamism of a younger and increasingly estranged generation and, crucially, vulnerability to a new economic crisis because the underlying systemic issues remain unresolved.

 Is the Left capable of building an alternative political bloc?

The answer is not straightforward.  On the one hand, Corbynism is focused on building and energizing a committed core and historically may be recognized as having saved the Labour Party from collapse after a catastrophic defeat in May. The Core may be the foundation of an effective counter bloc, but cannot represent it.  A counter-hegemony will need to be built by reaching out around new vision of a productive economy; a more democratic state that balances national leadership and local discretion (a more democratic version of the Northern Powerhouse); a new social alliance that really articulates the idea of ‘one nation’ and an ability to represent these ideas and visions in everyday, common-sense language. 

 If the Conservatives instinctively understand political hegemony Labour politicians, with one or two notable exceptions, behave as though they have little or no understanding of what is actually going on.  If they hope to win in future this has to change and a good start would be a collective sober analysis of the Conservative’s political and ideological achievements.

This is an extract from The Osborne Supremacy, a new pamphlet by Compass.

Ken Spours is a Professor at the IoE and was Convener of the Compass Education Inquiry. The final report of the Compass Education Inquiry, Big Education can be downloaded here.